Any and all comments appreciated! Hope you enjoy Forest of Rianyen Overtures of sorrow painted their calligraphic words on his heart as the trees surrounding him cried their leaves down, down to the mossy undergrowth of the forest floor, down to the solid earth, far from the whimsical dreams and fancies of the clouds. For long they had reached towards the heavens, towards the star-spangled skies, towards hope, but now, here in the darkest of all autumns, there was nothing more unreachable. Before long he, too, would fall, as the rustling ochre and sanguine leaves around him fell, to be crushed beneath the careless feet of passersby. He could see the coming of a new age now more than ever before, and he knew with equal certainty that he, who had fought harder than any, was powerless to stop it. His lips twisted in irony at that the most powerful of earth-shackled forces, change. He had lived for seventy years; he was young, to be sure, by the standards of the Amory, but compared to the short-lived humans with their hurried ways, he was old, a veteran of the hardships of a ruthless world, and he knew well the ways of change. He trudged on bitterly towards the waterfall, towards his self-imposed prison. Yes, he knew the transformations that came with the passage of time all too well. Not such a very great time ago he had been a child living peacefully in a village that knew nothing of war or violence save tales of human barbarians. Not such a great time ago he had cared for nothing but the quiet life of a musician and dreams of seeing a dragon again. Change had shattered that dream, or rather made it a living nightmare. When the flames came, they were not those of a dragon, but those of humans, incinerating all in their path, leaving only him, a youth, a child who others would have perhaps deemed lucky, to watch the ashes from which the phoenix people would not rise and to struggle to understand why. In a twisted way, he had achieved all that he had ever wished for, he supposed. He had become not only the companion of a dragon, but also the most sacred of all beings: a dragon’s guardian, a dragon’s first and only protector in this human-ridden world. It was the fact that he was guardian to the last dragon, the final member of an ancient, holy race that had flown through the skies of the world for millennia, that made his shoulders weak from burden and his soul dark with fear. He was the last of the Amory, shielding the last of the dragons, and this day, this dank and dreary day, he could nearly believe might be his last. His sense of nearing danger heightened even more as he stepped ever closer to the cave that he had made his home. His pointed ears pricked at every rustling sound of the forest, at every small whisper carried upon the mischievous winds, and his eyes grew more and more watchful, searching the undergrowth for signs of hidden life. Birds passed overhead; insects, lizards and the crawling creatures of the woodland floor skittered about amongst the leaves and branches below. His strides grew ever quicker, his heart pounding, every sense of his body sharpened into mortified premonition. He could begin to hear water rushing in the distance. The call of a wolf echoed from somewhere deep within the jungle. And then he heard the ring of steel— The woods flew by him, smeared as his haste slid through wet paint, shadows of green, of blue sky, all framing the frantic beating of his heart. A crossbow came into his hands as he ran. Once, twice, he nearly tripped, his sure footing sabotaged by fear. And then, suddenly, he was dashing alongside the river—the water crystal blue, churning angrily, furious—past the great oak where he had buried his predecessor, past the fork in the river, until he was standing, breathless, at the top of the waterfall. It seemed the world spread itself out below him; from the top of the cliff, looking down on the pure liquid of the lake, the mischievous and vivacious trees, the depths of the water, cloud white and cerulean blue and emerald green, he could not repress a feeling of being at the very pinnacle of existence, struck, as he always was, as he would always be, by the perfection exemplified here. He struggled to cope, his eyes searching every visible corner for signs of trouble. There was nothing. It was as pristine a day as any, the waterfall as stunning as ever. Silence was marred only by his ragged breathing. Still he could not shake the dire feeling that something was terribly wrong, that something horrible had happened. As it had been that day, so many years ago now, when he had watched the only home he had ever known burn to the ground, now he could sense the violence and death in the air. He placed his crossbow back in the folds of his cloak, shedding the heavy garment and making sure his other weapons were properly secured, and then flung himself off the cliff in a graceful dive. For a long moment he was flying, and then he was in the crisp, cool water, slipping down beneath its refreshing blanket, carefully, although he knew already that his presence would have long since been noticed by any watchers. He spared one last glance back at the far shores of the mere, and then swam through the waterfall. The brightness of the tranquil autumn day and its expansive openness was replaced abruptly by the darkness of the cave, the grey stone worn down by so many years of water, the rushing of the waterfall echoing through the caverns in a cacophony of sound. His soul caught in his throat. It was quiet, too quiet, too calm for there to be a dragon here. Evaneleksandros—Evanel—had grown cautious as he grew weaker, as it had become more and more obvious that the age of dragons, and with it the age of the Amory, was after three millennia finally drawing to a close. He should have greeted any visitors. He should have sensed a being approaching. No matter that it was his guardian; Evanel would not have known that, and should have been waiting vigilantly, to make sure, to defend himself if need be. The fact that he had not could mean only one thing. The Amory stepped warily towards the entrance of the cave, trying to rationalize with what could have happened. Maybe Evanel was just asleep. Maybe he had at last grown sick of being cooped up in this cavern and risked leaving for a moment. Maybe—the scent of blood not yet dried filled the guardian’s nostrils, sending a wave of nausea through him. He struggled to maintain hope. It could not be. He forced himself to keep walking, forced himself to turn the corner. It was as he had feared. The last of the great dragons lay at the center of the grotto, magnificent even now, onyx-black scales still glimmering, brilliant red eyes glazed over, at last in peace. He was finally dead. For one thousand years Evaneleksandros Derzhevynian had graced the face of the earth, and now he was dead, taken from the world with one fell stroke. He had at least died quickly; a gargantuan broadsword, the favored weapon of the brutal humans, was still visible protruding from his open mouth, evidently having been driven upwards, into his brain. He had not been dead long. The blood was still fresh. He should have been there. The Amory stepped forward, towards the dragon’s jaws, touching the carcass, still barely able to believe the near-immortal being was dead. He should have been there to protect Evanel, to defend the dragon against the humans. It was all he had ever been asked to do, his only task, his only charge, and he had failed, just as he had failed Masaria, just as he had failed his adopted family, just as he had failed everyone who he had ever cared for. They had all died, one after the other, and now he had been left again, alone once more. The wave of relief he felt at no longer being condemned to try and protect those he loved made his guilt all the more acute. The least he could do was try and hide the dragon’s massive body, to try to save Evanel’s corpse from desecration in death as he could not save Evanel in life, to keep the bloodthirsty humans from fulfilling their ridiculous superstitions about the attributes of various dragon parts. Drowning in melancholy, he grabbed hold of the broadsword embedded in the dragon’s maw. <Vistan Ausar Masariaqui sa-Derzhevyn> He froze in shock at the sound of his name, releasing the gold-hilted sword in astonishment. He was Vistan Ausar, mourner of Masaria, protector of Derzhevyn; his name even now represented his failure. But how—disconcerted, he hesitatingly placed his hands back on the sword. <There is still hope. There is always hope. Do not wallow in your pain> the voice he now recognized as that of Evanel continued. He would have protested, but the voice, which he slowly realized he was hearing not through his ears but through his mind, did not cease. <There will be another for you to protect> Another dragon? Another Amory? His mind raced with questions, but he could feel the presence of the dragon’s spirit leaving him, and he could not help a feeling of bitterness at Evanel’s cryptic message. He would never be allowed to truly mourn his losses, for always he was sent to attempt to protect another. Vistan pulled the sword out of Evanel’s skull, grimacing at the red-brown stain of the dragon’s blood and at the crude form of the human weapon. He had no choice. He had never had a choice. The only reason for his existence that he had ever found was to protect the dragons, and Evanel had been like a father to him, a friend, a teacher. It would bring tragedy to obey the dragon’s last wishes, it always did, but he had to try. He spared himself one last, lingering glance at the carcass of the dragon. With tremendous force, he slammed the broadsword against the wall of the cave, at its narrow entrance. A few small pebbles fell from the side. He struck again, with all of his anger and grief, putting into his blow his fury at the injustice of life, at the warrior humans who had shattered the peace of a once-vibrant world, at fate itself. Again and again he hammered at the wall, until he felt the entire foundations of the cavern shaking around him, heard the earth itself rebelling, and the stone surrounding him began to go the way of all things, succumbing to the laws of gravity. The cave behind the waters of the Rianyen Mere waterfall, which for so long Evanel had made his home, would also be his grave. He watched until the last of the dragon’s night-colored scales vanished beneath the cloud of dust, and then he turned away, sword in hand, leaving behind only a few solitary tears on the stone below.